Once upon a time, the phrase ‘green’ implied wide-eyed extremism. You know the types, living in the trees in the Glen of the Downs or rolling in the mud at some bizarre eco hug-in festival in deepest rural Roscommon.
Yes, just as the Dutch wear clogs, the Swiss love their cuckoo clocks and the Irish are all violent alcoholics, so anyone who gives a toss about the world in which we live and which our children shall inherit is an unemployable treehugger. QED.
This intellectual shorthand is more prevalent than you may think. Sections of the Irish media I would suggest actually buys this stereotype. It was reinforced recently from an unexpected source – Dr William Reville, UCC biochemistry professor and the college’s ‘public awareness of science’ officer. Dr Reville is also an Irish Times columnist.
As he explained in his recent column, Gaia (the notion of the Earth as an organic, self-regulating entity) is the new Green God. And the green religion, says Reville, is fundamentalist – i.e. extremist, intolerant and irrational. The antithesis of science, and by extension, scientists such as Dr Reville.
His opening statement is a most unscientific sweeping generalisation: “First, the green movement believes in God, or more precisely, a Godess called Gaia”. Considering that the “green movement” covers a very broad church that encompasses the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and lots of the rest of us who are just extremely concerned citizens, this smear smacks of a cheap shot.
“Belief” in Gaia is, at best, a minority pursuit. Gaia is not in fact a religion at all, merely a way of explaining in lay terms the interconnectedness of the many systems that, operating together, render this planet so hospitable to carbon-based life in all its many forms.
Dr Reville’s mockery of the Garden of Eden from which mankind “has fallen” is in a similar vein. It’s true, a hard core of so-called ‘deep green’ types believe we should abandon civilisation and ‘commune with nature’, whatever that now means. If they represent more than one in 50 contemporary ‘greens’, I’d be very much surprised.
The mockery intensifies as he pokes fun at the “golden rule of sustainability”. Oddly enough, it would seem axiomatic that every system must operate within the resources available to it, or face collapse, such as was witnessed on Easter Island or in the disintegration of the advanced Maya culture in central America.
This is science fact, not religious voodoo. How someone in possession of a doctorate in science (even biochemistry) can think otherwise suggests he has hung his science hat on the door and is pursuing some other grudge or agenda entirely.
Dr Reville then takes a pop at organically produced food, stating that its “claimed nutritional superiority…has no scientific basis”. Many people, green and otherwise are deeply worried about factory farming methods, which include dosing animals that never see the light of day with high levels of antibiotics and growth promoters, as well as the use of high levels of pesticides in plant production.
Apart from the environmental havoc they wreak, guess where these antibiotics and pesticides end up? Yes, in you and me, and in our children. As a scientist, Dr Reville has to know this too, but again, he picks and chooses facts only as they serve his argument, a most un-scientist like practice.
I was reassured to hear that the use of DDT “poses no health hazards”. Except that it is not supported by the facts. DDT is in fact a ‘persistent organic pollutant’. It has a half-life of 2-5 years. It accumulates in the food web, and concentrates in apex predators, such as eagles and other birds. DDT undoubtedly has its uses in tackling malaria but to suggest that it somehow harmless and “poses no health hazards” is demonstrably false.
For me, the biggest howler in an article riddled with half-truths was his bizarre comments regarding global population. “We rarely hear any more of the dangers of the ballooning world population now that birth rates are plummeting –instead, we are smoothly invited to worry about the ill-effects associated with an ageing population”, says Reville.
Plummeting? The good doctor is either winding us up, or he is hopelessly unfamiliar with the facts. Today, there are over 6.7 billion people on the planet. Just 40 years ago, that number was 3 billion. This year, 80 million more people will be born than die – that’s the same as adding the population of Germany to our planet in a single year. Next year will be much the same, and the year after…
Population has not “plummeted”, it has not even levelled off. Dr Reville is again fact-picking, presumably by focusing only on countries where population is in decline; even when you factor these in, we are still adding that 80 million new people a year. This is yet another case of not letting pesky facts get in the way of a good rant.
His piece rambles on with the slur that “many leading greens seem to be Marxists”. Since Dr Reville’s “facts” aren’t factual, there’s really not much point in wondering what his “opinions” are based on.
Dr Reville has, I suppose, the right to harbour a grudge as much as the next fellow. Where it gets a little more serious is that his column appears on a page headed “Science Today”, and in his title, he is described as “public awareness of science officer at UCC”. This could lead the unsuspecting reader to the incorrect conclusion that this is a measured scientific standpoint rather than just one man’s highly idiosyncratic side-swipe at something he has an extremely poor understanding of.
As an alumnus of that fine institution, I have to go along with the contributor to today’s Irish Times Letters Page, John Mulcahy, who wrote: “Denial, generally the preserve of the determindely ignorant, ill befits Dr Reville, who frankly should know better than to rely on the propaganda that more commonly characterises the less evolved of the industrialist species. His credibility is in tatters and one can only wonder at his motives. Is this a common view among the UCC scientific fraternity? If so, we should advise our brightest young minds to seek enlightenment elsewhere”.
Having been in Cork last weekend, I would like to reassure Mr Mulcahy that Dr Reville’s views are entirely, utterly and exclusively his own. Unfortunately, he is only too happy to share them with his captive student audience, however, so maybe Mr Mulcahy’s injunction about seeking scientific enlightenment elsewhere has some merit.